The Secret World GDC 2011 PreviewBy Eric Eckstein - Posted Mar 10, 2011
The Secret World Live Demonstration Preview
It's no secret that my X-Files addiction has been re-triggered by Funcom's upcoming PC MMO, The Secret World. Less than a year ago, I got my first look at TSW and was swept away by its strategic decisions: No levels, no classes, epic tales of myths and legends. Sure, the whole thing could crumble under its own ambition, but after a live demonstration at GDC, I want to believe.
For those looking for a summary of The Secret World that are too busy to click my aforementioned preview, imagine a game where everything is true: Atlantis exists, there's a city on the moon, and somewhere, somehow, Bigfoot lives! In the game, you align with a secret society (the Templars, Illuminati or Dragon), and wage a covert war in which you are an active participant. Quests are linked like story beats, weaving a tale that is dished out as voiced cinematic sequences, and players aren't constrained by levels or classes.
On display for this particular demo of The Secret World was a return to the New England town of Kingsmouth to witness an in-game quest, tasking players with killing a bunch of zombies running amok in town. One of the reasons I play more single-player games than multiplayer or MMO games is that I'm a big fan of story, and thankfully, The Secret World is making great strides in the story department with each mission including in-game cinematics. While the dialog can sometimes be both chilling and interesting, the voice acting is a bit of a mixed bag right now. I hope Funcom spends the necessary bucks to get the proper talent and direction, because it's the only blemish on an impressive approach to storytelling.
Inside the quest itself, we get to witness a few new developments in the way The Secret World handles missions. In this particular example, the players need to kill zombies, kind of like a "kill 10 rats"-type quest. Instead of waiting for creatures to spawn, the players can actively generate them by jumping on the parked cars on the street, triggering a car alarm, which, as we now all know, attracts zombies. In addition, there are fuel cans lying around that can be shot, creating fire traps for enemies to run through. These are simple, obvious examples, but the Funcom team is looking to integrate more of this thinking with its mission design. Funcom has also built-in mission tiers inside TSW quests; think of these as checkpoints so that if you have to log off mid-mission, you don't lose all your progress. Just pick up where you left off.
Even more exciting is how the larger game world reacts to player actions in The Secret World. On the beaches of Kingsmouth, there are draug pods which essentially give birth to the zombie creatures that have appeared in this zone. Players can thin out the population by destroying the pods, but in the water, there are draug females that attach incubators to the creatures that run up onto the shore and plant new pods. So players can wade into the water to stop that from happening, taking down draug females to stop the cycle… but that's where the draug lord comes in. This huge, Lovecraftian, demonic jellyfish-looking beast doesn't take kindly to his ladies being manhandled, and players will really need to coordinate to help turn the tide there. Later, an alarm sounds signaling an attack on the barricaded police station. If a hero decides to investigate, they may discover that the zombie waves are being driven down the street by a larger threat, a draug warmonger, which can be slain to stop the attacks. It's this kind of ecology that makes each game environment feel more alive, as well as gives players more control over what does or doesn't happen inside the game.
But it doesn't stop with the gameplay i. Funcom also showed off an Investigation-based mission, which involves solving a series of clues and riddles. These are intended as puzzles for groups at large to solve over long periods of time, using whatever tools they have at their disposal. In our particular example, we followed symbols on sewer grates to a hidden plaque with names that ended up leading us to Town Hall. Once there, we need to know that one of the names was a particular type of painter and identify his work, instead of the other red herrings mounted there, and yes, it goes on from there, eventually forcing us to look up a particular Bible verse to gain access to a new area. What's fascinating about this particular chain of events is that it requires the player to go out of the game, leveraging Google for research or digging into forums to share theories with other players, and considering the vast amount of urban legends The Secret World is fueled by, there's an endless supply of investigative material out there.
While the subject matter can be terrifying, Funcom hopes its character build options are not. At first glance, it's ridiculously daunting. Over 500 unique skills are available on a talent wheel that will make your head spin, but the designers have integrated templates that suggest builds based on desired play style. As mentioned earlier, The Secret World has no classes and no leveling; instead as you earn experience, you are awarded skill points to spend on active and passive abilities. These skills scale with your equipment, and none are intended to become obsolete through the course of the game. At any one time, you can have seven active and seven passive abilities on your character, but you can swap at will with any of the skills you've previously selected. Think of it like a collectible card game, such as Magic: The Gathering. You buy the individual skills (cards), but you build your character (deck) as you please. As you obtain more skills, you'll construct lethal combination,s either within your own build or in tandem with a fellow player. Even better, The Secret World will allow you to test whatever build type you've created before you use it live. It's incredibly ambitious, and will require a lot of smart interface decisions from the Funcom team to be successful, but the versatility in play style is unmatched.
For those that need a little more action and mayhem in their MMO, The Secret World's PVP was also revealed with capture the flag, domination/king of the hill and team deathmatch-esque game modes to be set in Stonehenge, El Dorado, and the Lost City of Shambhala. Of particular note was the CTF variant, which is a 30 player PVP match within El Dorado. The object is to control up to four different power idols, but players choose where their base is to defend the idols. This leads to a lot of strategic decisions in the type of character you bring to the fight. Are you going to beef up and become highly resistant to damage so you can fend off an attack, or put more of your powers into offensive skills to try and reclaim idols? One can only imagine the chaos to ensue with this.
Unsurprisingly, there's still a lot we don't know about The Secret World at this stage, but as it heads into closed beta, we can only hope that the Funcom team is spending their efforts improving an already solid storyline, designing interesting missions, and optimizing its user interface. From what we have seen, TSW clearly has a sturdy foundation; let's hope it pays off when the game finally is ready in either late 2011 or most likely, 2012.